Five Ways Teams and Leaders Can Deal with Negative Attention
The New England Patriots recently finished an offseason that was riddled with cheating allegations, a subsequently reversed four-game suspension for their star quarterback Tom Brady and a barrage of anger from an angry NFL fan base for Deflategate. While distractions mounted for the Patriots and most other teams might have folded under pressure, Tom Brady is playing at a record setting pace and the team has won all three of their first games. Whether you are a Patriots fan or not, it is remarkable how they have handled their controversies year after year, and I find the leadership to be a fascinating case study.
How does a coach ensure that a team can deal with negative distractions? What psychological elements should a coach or leader consider when trying to block out the noise? As a sports psychology consultant and an adjunct professor at Ohio University’s coaching education program, I grapple with these questions all the time. Here are five suggestions that any coach or leader can follow when trying to maintain composure in the face of the negative.
5. Use Your Leadership Skills: Before addressing the team or the media, designing the next play or implementing a game plan, a coach has to figure out how the negative attention is impacting his or her own performance and stress levels. Helping a team overcome negative media attention has to start internally. Some of the recommendations I provide are mindfulness exercises or meditation and personal reflection. While it is hard to imagine Coach Belichick writing in a journal, it is clear that he controls his own emotions first and can then stand in front of a hostile audience and handle every question thrown his way with confidence. He does not bend under the pressure, and his peace of mind allows him to lead his own team. Great leaders control the negative internally first before it becomes contagious.
A coach then has to find a way to translate his leadership and personal handling of the situation to the team. While we do not have cameras to access what Bill Belichick said to his team during Deflategate or after ESPN released an article outlining years of alleged cheating, I would have to imagine, based on the way that he handles his press conferences, he simply addressed the situation once and moved forward. But to address the team effectively, a coach needs to understand his or her own leadership style, which varies depending on the coach. For instance, some are authoritative, some are democratic and the list of styles can go on and on. What is essential, no matter the coaching style, is dealing with the negative right away and handling it no differently than any other situation. A coach or leader should maintain who they are and conduct business as usual.
4. Communication: When teams are dealing with outside pressure, great leaders have to make sure that they instill the importance of communication. A coach should find a way to create an environment where players or teammates are comfortable with open dialogue. The New England Patriots are going to face plenty of animosity when they step on that field, and the coach is going to need to diffuse the fire. If he sees that they are not performing, then he needs to address this issue right away in a team meeting. He must find a way for the team to collaborate on ways to overcome the distractions, either through team building exercises or open dialogues. In the end, these athletes are paid to win. They would not be where they are if they were not mentally strong enough to overcome these situations, but the coach needs to be the glue that binds them together and facilitates necessary communication.
3. Understanding Psychological Ramifications of the Negative: Tom Brady is one of the most mentally tough athletes in the NFL, but how did he handle the immense amount of pressure during Deflategate? It starts with knowing how stress can have a tremendous effect on the psyche and performance. Inner turmoil can cause an athlete’s muscles to tighten up and potentially lead to injury. Stress can eat away at a person, especially a football player who feels he needs to play through the pain.
Most athletes believe they need to play through stress, too, but without an understanding of the psychological ramifications of not finding an outlet for that stress. Then the team is in trouble. There are plenty of ways to remedy stress: meditation, visualizations, finding distractions and many others. Often athletes are so focused on their next opponent or proving those who doubt them wrong, they forget to focus on themselves. But it is also essential that they find some time to put their minds at ease.
2. Social and Psychological Support: To combat negative attention, players should seek family and friends outside the athletic arena and find time to be around the people who believe in them the most. At the same time, there are professionals that athletes can leverage. For instance, seeing a sports psychology consultant who can lead the player through visualization and mediation exercises is a positive step in managing stress. We know that Tom Brady often used these resources. When he was at the University of Michigan and lost his starting quarterback position, he consulted with associate athletic director Greg Harden, who helped Brady through difficult times that bordered on depression. Famously, when Brady asked for help becoming a starter at the University of Michigan, Harden responded that he could not help him become a starter, but said, “I can help you with this: I can help you believe you should be the starter at Michigan.” So many athletes lose confidence in the face of adversity, but the best players find their way, and it is usually the best coaches or consultants that help them.
1. Team First: In the end, the New England Patriots are winning games not because of Tom Brady or Bill Belichick alone; they are winning because they are an incredibly strong team that understands mental toughness is just as important as being physically tough. They understand they are in it together and that people are going to make mistakes. People are going to drop the ball. But as a leader and a coach, it is essential to develop team cohesiveness. Players have to be aware of how outside distractions can affect them, but a great coach can use that negative energy and turn it into something powerful.